unbag: Interview with Aaron Cooper

NY, April 2017

unbag is American Artist, Logan Lape, Andy Wentz, and Aaron Cooper, all artists who are interested in conversation and writing. They have all arrived in New York to study and work during the last 3 and 5 years. American and Logan are from the West Coast. Andy is from the Mid-West. Aaron is Australian

AM: NY Art Maps/ AC: Aaron Cooper

AM: What is unbag? And what does the name stand for?

AC: Hmmm...unbag is an artist collective. We curate exhibitions, moderate panel discussions, stage critique groups and, now, we’re publishing a magazine.

The name is an acronym. When we first started working together in 2015, Andy Wentz and I wanted to put together a space in which our artist friends could hang out and discuss studio practice. It was all very unpretentious.

When promoting our first event it became evident that we needed a name. At that point, we hadn’t done anything and didn’t really have an identity, so the idea of a name seemed ridiculous. Andy coined “unnamed Brooklyn artist group”. We decided to run with it.

Now we use unbag for short.

AM: How did unbag start?

AC: As I mentioned, Andy and I were interested in organizing a structure that fosters critical dialogue between artists we like.

Initially, we functioned much like a critique group or seminar. We’d ask friends if it might be productive for them to open their studios to critical conversation. Often these meetings would take place in an apartment, or on a studio floor. Sometimes the artist had something new they were working on. Other times they’d present a slide show or lecture. We’d usually get between ten and twenty-five participants (many of these regulars) – and we always met in the evening.

As time went on, unbag started to get more visibility and so we began to receive more invitations and requests. Over 2015 and 2016, we worked with Sleep Center - an artist- run-space in Chinatown - where we moderated a series of panels. We also developed a couple of shows with them featuring artists we love.

Now - we’re working on a publishing project and have more members. For the time being, that’s our main focus - although, I’d love to get back to organizing events.

AM: How does the unbag critique series work?

AC: Ha! I like that you called it a ‘series’.

I suppose the easiest way to describe it is as an artist led seminar. We most often discuss work, ideas, or theory pertinent to that artist’s interest or practice.

The meetings are very egalitarian. The artist has a responsibility to be generous in the way that they lead the discussion, and participants have a responsibility to the work or ideas.

Anyone who’s interested in hermeneutic disciplines like art, social theory, or philosophy, is welcome to participate. We have no fixed space though, so you’ll have to meet us wherever we end up.

AM: When and why did you decide to make unbag as well a magazine?

AC: The move into publishing seemed only natural. Our function has always been about dialogue. Working with texts is simply an extension of that impulse. Here, however, the conversations are more tangible and have a possibility for wider circulation.

I guess Andy and I made a decision to pursue the publication in early 2016, although we had explored the idea much earlier than that. At the time, we conceived of the project as a “space” in which artworks that lend themselves to publishing contexts could be curated and distributed.

What we’re publishing now is a diversity of projects. Some might be characterized as artworks, others as literary works, and others as essays.


AM: Is there a specific subject matter for each publication? Or what is the criteria for selecting the texts and authors?


AC: Yeah – we develop a concept or question and curate works around that. For this issue, we worked with a prompt. We had a predetermined list of artists and writers that we invited to work with us. We also staged an open call, from which we met some interesting people.

As far as the theme goes...we’d stumbled on an antiquated word—metis

Metis  has origins in ancient Greece. There’s no derivative of it in contemporary languages and there’s no known analysis of the word in any of the seminal texts produced during that period. It’s kind of a slippery, ambiguous term, however we can say that it describes forms of creative intelligence characterized by ‘cunning, wiliness, or trickery’.

For us – these qualities of cunning, guile, or illusion etc. might be contextualized in the practice of contemporary art. Not only do we find them in the formal characteristics of art, but they’re also relevant to its social role. Art is, in many ways constituted by paradox and contradiction. It's a kind of space in which something like metis fits very neatly.

So...obviously, we were compelled by the productive tension latent in this idea. We approached a diversity of artists to see what they would do with it.

For those looking for more information about metis, try Ben Singletons’s, (Notes Toward) Speculative Design, Michel de Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life, or Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society by Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant)


Peter Rostovsky for unbag

Peter Rostovsky for unbag

AM: Can you tell us what the lineup for this issue is? And if it is not a secret, can we know a bit about the articles and authors included in this first issue?

AC: Ha. Secrets?! I didn’t know that this was that kind of interview. We’ve been lucky to work with some great people. In no particular order, unbag features: Loney Abrams and Johnny Stanish, manuel arturo abreu, Eva Barto, Pierre Chaumont, Devin Kenny, John Lee, Haleigh Nickerson, Antonio Ortega, Julian Reid, Peter Rostovsky, Margarita Sánchez Urdaneta, Annie Julia Wyman, Max Geller, and Theadora Walsh.

Unfortunately, I don’t have much space to discuss the contributions, but I can allude to a couple in an effort to give you a sense of what’s in there - and hopefully whet your appetite a little.

If anyone’s managed to get their hands on an unbag tote, you’ll recognize the phrase “truth is a subjugated word”. This was coined by Margarita Sanchez Urdaneta in a work inspired by an investigation of plausible deniability. Margarita has an unusual capacity with language. Much of her previous work has considered how accounts of forced disappearances, mass graves, and terror tactics are obtained and framed in her native Colombia.

Portland, OR based poet, essayist, and artist, manuel arturo abreu developed a compelling critical essay calling into question certain intellectual fetishes of the art world, asserting that these discourses operate in accord with an unrecognized debt to African-American cultural producers. manuel also recently published a book of poetry titled ‘Transtrender’ through Quimérica Books that I’ve been meaning to get my hands on.

In 2016, artist John Lee visited a publicly owned private space on Wall Street and repeatedly threw his body against a wall in an act of public provocation. We’ve worked with him to publish documentation of the fall out of that exercise…

There’s much more that I’m compelled by, but I’ll leave it there for the time being. You’ll have to wait until the publication comes out…

AM: We know you are working on your first issue. When is it going to be out? What is the format?

AC: If all things go to plan – it’ll be out in May. We’re releasing two versions: one digital, the other in print. Readers will find some subtle differences between the two. The print edition has content that can’t be found in the digital version and, similarly, the digital version contains things not available in print.

We contend that, while digital and print platforms have a close relationship, they’re semiotically distinct. So...it makes sense that we’d want to explore both.

Daniel Cerrejón

Daniel Cerrejón

AM: What are other themes, articles or authors that you would be interested to approach in your next issues? Are you going to continue with the critique meetings? Hope so we really enjoy those !

AC: Hmmm… that’s a good question. We have some tricks up our sleeve, but we’ll need to get through the current edition first...

Some questions that I’m personally occupied with concern an ethics of art in the aftermath of recent right wing and populist swings. These are both a symptom and cause of social rupture. As such, I’m curious as to the ways an ethics of art might have been transformed by this moment? What criteria should we now use to evaluate the arts? 

I have no idea if any of this will manifest into a project down the line

With regard to the meetings – yes, you can expect more of these. I anticipate that there’ll be more programming over the summer.

AM: What do you think about the critical art debate in NYC and what do you think your role is in it?

AC: Sure...well, I guess people come to New York because there’s a sense that this is where the conversation is. The sheer scale of the New York art world means that, inevitably, there’s an incredible volume and diversity of discourse...

I don’t think I’d find any disagreement in suggesting that the market is the central structure of American art. Almost by necessity, galleries, museums, and publications are developed to service that aspect of the discourse. We’re all, in some way, enveloped within it. However, if I had to make a claim, I’d suggest that it’s in this way that we’re distinguished...

We’re an artist-run-initiative, which means we’re small. And because we’re small, we have distinct challenges and opportunities. What we do promotes activity, production, and dialogue at a grassroots level. Our size means we’re limited in the scope of our outreach, but we also have a lot of flexibility. Therefore, in contrast to those working in commercial or institutional modes, we have significant freedom in the moves we make.

We typically champion voices that express a social or political urgency.

AM: How often will the magazine be published?

AC: We’re doing two a year. For as long we have the energy...

AM: Follow this talented thinkers and check out the online magazine at: http://unbag.net/